Clinical trials using new cancer imaging and treatment technology start soon in N.S.

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A new system for treating cancer unveiled in Halifax on Monday will be better able to pinpoint tumours and focus radiation to avoid damaging healthy tissue, doctors say.

Nova Scotia will be the first place in Canada to use the equipment called Ethos, made by California-based Varian Medical Systems. It’s already been installed at the QEII Hospital in Halifax where clinical trials are expected to begin within weeks.

Dr. James Robar, chief of medical physics for Nova Scotia Health, describes the technology as a potential game changer in cancer treatment at a Monday news conference.

It uses artificial intelligence combined with radiation therapy to target tumours with more precision.

He said he expects the therapy will result in shorter wait times and result in fewer radiation treatments than cancer patients typically endure now, such as a month of daily doses.

“Imagine a technology that could compress that month of treatments through improved precision and accuracy into one to five days, absolutely transformational,” Robar said.

The system he said is not yet approved by Health Canada but the company said it already has clearance in the U.S.

Treatment avoids radiation of healthy tissues

Varian CEO Chris Toth said the Ethos system produces images of tumours before delivering radiation. In that way, it can track changes in the cancer and the rest of the body to zero in on tumours throughout treatment.

“You’re not only eradicating the disease but you’re improving quality of life and reducing toxicities,” Toth said, adding it has not been possible with previous approaches. “The challenge has been that there is a lot of healthy tissue and critical structures that get toxicity and so patients live with a tremendous number of morbidities.”

The system is designed to provide treatment within a 15 minute appointment. (Nova Scotia Health)

Varian is providing a significant in-kind contribution to the project, along with $12 million in operational funding from the Province of Nova Scotia, and $8 million in donations through the QEII Foundation, according to a news release.

‘We’re bringing it to the world’

Provincial Health Minister Michelle Thompson said the treatment could make a big difference for many Nova Scotians.

“One in two Nova Scotians will be touched by cancer and so for us to be able to have that cutting-edge therapy here, not waiting for the rest of the world to bring it to us, we’re bringing it to the world,” Thompson said.

Thirty patients will be taking part in the first study using the technology. The focus of it will be on breast cancer, liver cancer and lung cancer. A follow up trial is being planned on head and neck cancer.

Robar said he expects full clearance from Health Canada in about a year.

“When it is Health Canada cleared we will hit the ground running,” he said.

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